I had been staring at the wall for a few minutes. There was a small shrine at the foot of it. Burned out candles and dead flowers lined the sidewalk. The layers of paint coated the wall and three words of graffiti filled it; Revel in Life. Staring at those words, many thoughts raced through my mind. I felt that I had been there before, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t recall when or why.
The drizzling had stopped, and the sun was peaking from behind the clouds. I looked up at dispersing clouds and marveled at the contrast of darker to brighter hue of colors. Folding the umbrella, I was carrying; I started walking down the street with one last fleeting glance towards the small shrine. I picked up the pace when my apartment building came into view. This was my latest home. I had moved here a few short days ago. There was a lot that I had left behind, but not everything. Unfortunately, memories had followed me, and I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling of dread no matter how hard I tried.
Entering the apartment, I threw the keys on the counter, and my bag along with my coat on the floor. I poured myself a glass of water and made my way through the unopened and half-opened boxes scattered everywhere I hadn’t wanted to unpack, because I wasn’t sure how long I would stay there.
My life had taken an unexpected turn when my husband and son had died a few months earlier. I couldn’t get far away enough to rid myself of the lingering memories, some happy, some sad, but they were all torturous. My therapist told me I wasn’t letting myself grieve, that’s why I felt that way.
Sleep, I needed sleep.
I picked up my bag from the floor and took out the bottle of sleeping pills. I hadn’t been able to fall asleep, that’s why the doctor had prescribed them. After a few minutes, my eyes became heavy, and I drifted off to sleep. My last thought was a plea for nightmares to stay away.
I woke up with a start. It took me a while to get my bearings. It was the same nightmare, the one I had been having since their deaths. Everyone I had ever loved was gone, leaving me alone in this wretched world.
What was I to do?
Putting both my arms around myself, I rocked my body back and forth. The movement calmed me down a little, but that’s when I heard it. Muffled at first, the sound became clear after a while. It sounded like a child was crying. I rushed out of my bed and frantically looked around the small apartment—in every corner, and behind every door—no one was there. The cries intensified and then suddenly, all was quiet.
I couldn’t sleep after that, but sun rose, and the day started with me still wallowing in self-pity. It might take years, if not a lifetime, for me to get over the deaths of my beloveds. I had resigned myself to my fate, taking one day at a time, and hoping that something would change soon.
“You’re late again,” one of my coworkers said, as I entered the office.
I couldn’t remember her name. The only thing I remembered about her was thinking how pretty she was when we first met. Saying nothing to her, I sat down behind my desk. Being fifteen minutes late was no big deal.
“Did you hear me?” she said again, trying to get my attention.
“Huh?” I looked at her blankly. I couldn’t remember the last time any of my current coworkers had bothered talking to me. Not that I blamed them. I wasn’t exactly an approachable person, and I had joined this office merely a week ago. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“You’re late again,” she said.
I tried to understand what she wanted to say by stating the obvious.
“I know that you’re new and all, but try to be on time. By the way, my name is Syla.”
There was something about her that made me stare at her like a crazy woman.
“Hello, come back to earth.” This time she waved her hand in front of my eyes.
“Sorry, I’ll be on time from now on,” I said, and looked at the computer screen in front of me. I hoped she would take the hint and leave. I had become accustomed to keeping my interactions with people to the minimum. I had always had a hard time connecting with others, and it had gotten worse lately.
It was another mundane day with nothing new or exciting happening. I liked this town so far. People mostly minded their own business. No one had asked me intrusive questions. No one had tried to be friends. I didn’t care if they talked behind my back. That had nothing to do with me. The days went by quickly and my despair stayed with me.
I was walking home after a long day at the office. Home, such a beautiful word. And yet, it had lost all its warmth for me. It was a place where I slept. My steps faltered in front of the shrine. It called to me and I stopped there for a few minutes. There was something about it that felt wrong. As if time had stopped and nothing moved. Something dark lurked in the corners, but there was light too. I felt that it was trying to tell me something I wasn’t ready to hear.
The nightmare returned that night, and so did the voices. The only difference was that this time I heard the laughter and the sound of running feet. Children, there were more than one and they were playing. Such a sweet sound. It filled my heart with longing.
No, no, I shouldn’t think about it.
There was no point in dwelling on something that could never be. My son was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. It wasn’t his laughter that I heard.
It couldn’t be him. Could it?
Ringing phone brought be back from my reverie.
What time was it, anyway? Who was calling me this late?
I looked at my mobile phone’s screen and saw an unknown caller ID. I didn’t pick up. Nothing good ever came from picking up the phone in the middle of the night. Even though there was no one left for me to lose. I was still wary of the late-night phone calls. I turned off my mobile phone and tried to go back to sleep.
It was the weekend, and I had nothing to do. As I looked out the window, I noticed how pleasant the weather was. Staying in on a day like this felt like a waste, and I decided to explore the neighborhood. That’s how we met for the first time.
He was standing in front of the shrine that had caught my attention many times. I had never wondered why it was there, but that day I did. I stood next to him as we had both stared at the dead flowers and burnt out candles. I had said nothing because there was nothing to say. It was obvious that he was grieving for someone too. After a few minutes, he walked away, but I stayed there for a long time, lost in my thoughts.
Clouds gathered overhead, and it was getting chillier by the minute. I looked up and realized it was getting darker. Walking back to my apartment, I promised myself to come back. This place had become special to me. I wasn’t ready to let it go.
That night the nightmare didn’t come, and I slept well, waking up much later than was usual for me. Perhaps things were going to turn around for the better. For the first time in months, I saw a ray of hope.
Should I dare to hope?
It was him again, the guy from the other day. He was sitting on the sidewalk near the shrine and reading aloud from a book. I stopped in my tracks, standing close by, and listened to him read. The story was about a kid and his cat. It sounded fascinating, yet sad. The emotions laced the very air around us. The pain came unexpectedly and took my breath away. I gasped, and he looked up.
His eyes had the same look in them that I had seen in my own when I looked in the mirror. I was sure he thought the same thing, because there was recognition in his. We understood without saying a word. Losing a child did something to your heart. It stopped beating, and you stopped living without dying—our grief united us.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you,” I said hoarsely. My voice was thick from emotions and unshed tears, trying my hardest to hold them back. Listening to him read, I had been thinking about my son and the nights I used to read to him.
“It’s okay, I was leaving momentarily.” The reply was curt.
It was an awkward situation, to say the least. Neither of us wanted to talk about the past. The questions were on the tip of my tongue, but I wouldn’t ask, and he wouldn’t either. It didn’t feel right to pry.
“Don’t leave on my account,” I said, “I was just passing by.” I knew, for him, this place was personal. For me, it was just a symbol. He had more of a right to be there than I. “I live nearby and…” I trailed off.
What was I even trying to say?
He stood up and gave me a small smile. “I’m not leaving on your account.” He looked at the wall for a second and then left. I noticed he went in the direction of my apartment building. I followed him, entering the building right after him. “Do you live here?” He asked, noticing me.
I answered in an affirmative with the shake of my head.
“I’ve never seen you before.”
It wasn’t a question, but I answered anyway. “I just moved here a few weeks ago.”
He said nothing, and we parted ways.
His misery drew me to him, but I couldn’t tell what he thought of me. Strange, how it had never bothered me before. Yet, I wanted to know exactly what he thought of me.
Did I look weird?
I had never thought of myself as a normal personal. With my head full of disturbing thoughts, I entered my temporary home.
My mobile phone was ringing. I hadn’t taken it with me, because I wasn’t expecting any calls or messages. I hated taking my mobile everywhere I go. It felt pointless and reminded me too much of my husband. He was obsessed with mobile phones, and he used to message me at least a hundred times a day. I brought myself back from my thoughts that were turning darker by the moment and picked up the phone. “Hello,” I said.
“Hi, is this Yasmine Baloch?” It was a woman’s voice that I didn’t recognize. Before I even answered she continued, “This is Syla, from work. You remember me, right?”
Ah, Syla. Why was she calling me at this hour?
“I remember,” I said.
Gosh! How socially awkward was I?
No wonder I had no friends. I didn’t know how to interact with people like a normal human being.
What should I say to her? Should I ask how she was? Was I supposed to say something, or just wait for her to state the purpose of her call?
“So, Hmm,” she said, “You know, I hope I didn’t bother you. I was just thinking, you know… Like, it’s weekend, and I was wondering what you might be doing. Maybe you’d like to hang out with me. I mean, it’s just… I know you’re new in town so, I thought maybe I’d show you around. But it’s okay, if you’re busy or have plans.” She was rambling, and it was kind of cute.
Apparently, I’m not the only awkward person in the world. I smiled at the thought and then I froze. I hadn’t smiled in all those months until then.
“Hello, are you still there?” Syla’s voice over the phone brought me back to the present.
“Yes, sure. I’d like to hang out with you,” I replied, surprising us both. I wasn’t sure why I accepted her invitation. I needed a friend, and she had offered.
We talked for a while, deciding to meet at a café near my apartment building. We were meeting after a few hours. I took a nap. I often did that during the afternoons. Sometimes a day would seem too long. Especially when there wasn’t much for me to do and no one to keep me company.
I saw her as soon as I entered the café. She was sitting by a window in the far corner of the cozy room. She wasn’t alone, though. I wasn’t sure who was with her as the person was facing her, and I could only see him from behind. I approached cautiously. Meeting new people wasn’t on my agenda for today, or this century.
Syla waved as soon as she saw me. “Hey, you’re here,” she said, standing up, “I ran into my brother. He lives nearby. But don’t worry, he’s leaving.” She explained the presence of the other person.
I had already reached the table and noticed that it was the same guy I had met near the shrine. We said hello when Syla introduced us and he left.
His name was Sameer. The family resemblance between him and Syla was unmistakable. I wondered why I hadn’t notice it before, but it’s not something we notice often. I had become even more curious about him, which was unusual for me.
After that day, the two siblings had quickly become my ray of sunshine. There were my only friends in this town. The friends you could count on. I was spending a lot of time with Syla and beginning to open to her. I hadn’t told her everything, but I had shared a few things about my past.
Slowly, my soul was healing. The peace lasted for a few weeks, and then the voices were back. Children runny and laughing, playing happily. They were driving me insane. I was sure that they haunted the apartment. It was becoming too much for me to handle. I knew that I’d need to change apartments soon.
It was one such day. I was sick of the voices and was in a hurry to get away from there. That’s when I ran into Sameer in front of the elevator. “Oh, sorry,” I apologized.
“It’s okay,” he said. He searched my face for something and then asked, “Are you going somewhere?”
“Not really, I wanted to get away for a while.” I didn’t explain more, and he didn’t ask.
We hung out together. It was nice to see a familiar face, and I liked him. The sadness in his soul soothed the sadness in mine. I didn’t know his story, but I could feel that it was something like mine. We had both loved and lost. We were both trying to pick up the broken pieces of our hearts and put them back together.
That day we shared our burdens with each other. I told him about my husband and son, and how they had died in a car accident. He told me about his daughter, who died in a school shooting. That was what that small shrine was about. Many families living in our apartment building had lost children when some random shooter killed innocent kids in a school nearby.
For a while, I forgot all about my loss and grief. The thought that so many lives could be lost in a blink of an eye, without reason or logic, made my head spin. Whoever painted the words “revel in life!” on the wall behind the shrine was one brave soul. We couldn’t live in our pasts forever. At some point, we would have to move on.
The voices in my apartment made sense then. They were the remnants of the past. They were the echoes of the souls that were forced to leave too soon. They never bothered me after that. I listened to them and I reveled in life. The ones who were gone had left behind pieces of themselves. Not to make us sad, rather as a reminder of what was, and what could still be.
That town was where I settled and began anew. I was tired of moving from place to place, and the timing felt right. The pain would be there forever, no doubt in that, but I could see hope. Things would never be the same, but they didn’t have to, because I was willing to make a new life. A life that wouldn’t be better than the previous one, just different.
“Are you actually laughing?” It was Syla who said that. I could understand her shock. It was the first time she had heard my laughter. I felt much lighter now that I had decided to revel in life.
“Don’t be too surprised.” I gave her a bright smile. We were having dinner together at our favorite restaurant. “I have some good news. Soon we would become more than friends.”
Sameer had proposed to me the night before, and I had said yes. Thus, life went on. I looked out the window, in awe of the beauty of the night sky. Weather had become pleasant, and scorching heat of the day had surrendered to the breeze that was taking away residue of my pain with it.
© 2020 Fizza Younis. All Rights Reserved.
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